Celtic hurdle remains for Swedish champs

Swedish champions Helsingborg must overcome the Scottish champions Celtic in order to claim a place in the Champions League group stage for the first time since 2000.

Celtic hurdle remains for Swedish champs

Friday’s play-off round draw paired the Scottish title-holders with a Helsingborg side who eliminated Poland’s Slask Wroclaw 6-1 on aggregate in the third qualifying round.

Neil Lennon’s Celtic side beat HJK Helsinki 4-1 on aggregate in their tie, and were seeded for this stage of the competition.

Henrik Larsson, one of Celtic’s all-time great strikers, had two spells at Helsingborg either side of his seven-year stint at Celtic Park.

The play-off stage draw is divided into two, with domestic champions kept apart from clubs who qualified for the tournament without winning their national titles.

That means Celtic avoided teams from Europe’s biggest leagues, including former European Cup finalists Borussia Moenchengladbach.

The Bundesliga side, who were beaten by Liverpool in the 1977 final, are hoping to qualify for the group stages of the Champions League for the first time but face a tough tie against Ukraine’s Dynamo Kyiv.

Spanish club Malaga, who are enduring serious financial problems this summer, will face Greek outfit Panathinaikos, the third-qualifying round conquerors of Motherwell who are coached by former Malaga boss Jesualdo Ferreira.

“We know him, he left here by the back door,” said Malaga midfielder Duda.

“But we will focus on the game rather than worry about anything going on off the pitch.

“Everyone knows about Panathinaikos, they are one of Greece’s top teams with some great players, some of whom have played in Spain.”

Braga meet Udinese and Lille of France take on FC Copenhagen, the Danes who reached the last 16 two seasons ago.

“Denmark was perhaps the best destination ossible for us in terms of climate and proximity,” responded Lille captain Rio Mavuba.

“They are a top team who did really well in Europe two years ago.”

The 10 play-off round winners will join 22 automatic qualifiers in the group stage, which runs from September 18-19 to December 4-5.

This season’s final will be held at Wembley for the second time in three years.

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Putellas becomes second Spanish footballer in history to win Ballon d’Or

Alexia Putellas of Barcelona and Spain won the women's Ballon d'Or prize on Monday, becoming only the second Spanish-born footballer in history to be considered the best in the world, and claiming a win for Spain after a 61-year wait.

FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award.
FC Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas poses after being awarded thewomen's Ballon d'Or award. Photo: FRANCK FIFE / AFP

Putellas is the third winner of the prize, following in the footsteps of Ada Hegerberg, who won the inaugural women’s Ballon d’Or in 2018, and United States World Cup star Megan Rapinoe, winner in 2019.

Putellas captained Barcelona to victory in this year’s Champions League, scoring a penalty in the final as her side hammered Chelsea 4-0 in Gothenburg.

She also won a Spanish league and cup double with Barca, the club she joined as a teenager in 2012, and helped her country qualify for the upcoming Women’s Euro in England.

Her Barcelona and Spain teammate Jennifer Hermoso finished second in the voting, with Sam Kerr of Chelsea and Australia coming in third.

It completes an awards double for Putellas, who in August was named player of the year by European football’s governing body UEFA.

But it’s also a huge win for Spain as it’s the first time in 61 years that a Spanish footballer – male or female – is crowned the world’s best footballer of the year, and only the second time in history a Spaniard wins the Ballon d’Or. 

Former Spanish midfielder Luis Suárez (not the ex Liverpool and Barça player now at Atlético) was the only Spanish-born footballer to win the award in 1960 while at Inter Milan. Argentinian-born Alfredo Di Stefano, the Real Madrid star who took up Spanish citizenship, also won it in 1959.

Who is Alexia Putellas?

Alexia Putellas grew up dreaming of playing for Barcelona and after clinching the treble of league, cup and Champions League last season, her status as a women’s footballing icon was underlined as she claimed the Ballon d’Or on Monday.

Unlike the men’s side, Barca’s women swept the board last term with the 27-year-old, who wears “Alexia” on the back of her shirt, at the forefront, months before Lionel Messi’s emotional departure.

Attacker Putellas, who turns 28 in February, spent her childhood less than an hour’s car journey from the Camp Nou and she made her first trip to the ground from her hometown of Mollet del Valles, for the Barcelona derby on January 6, 2000.

Barcelona's Spanish midfielder Alexia Putellas (R) vies with VfL Wolfsburg's German defender Kathrin Hendrich
Putellas plays as a striker for Barça and Spain. GABRIEL BOUYS / POOL / AFP

Exactly 21 years later she became the first woman in the modern era to score in the stadium, against Espanyol. Her name was engraved in the club’s history from that day forward, but her story started much earlier.

She started playing the sport in school, against boys.

“My mum had enough of me coming home with bruises on my legs, so she signed me up at a club so that I stopped playing during break-time,” Putellas said last year.

So, with her parent’s insistence, she joined Sabadell before being signed by Barca’s academy.

“That’s where things got serious… But you couldn’t envisage, with all one’s power, to make a living from football,” she said.

After less than a year with “her” outfit, she moved across town to Espanyol and made her first-team debut in 2010 before losing to Barca in the final of the Copa de la Reina.

She then headed south for a season at Valencia-based club Levante before returning “home” in July 2012, signing for Barcelona just two months after her father’s death.

In her first term there she helped Barca win the league and cup double, winning the award for player of the match in the final of the latter competition.